Stop me if you've heard this one: troubled youth with a derelict parent rebels by, often literally, fighting against the society that has wronged him. These stories are all too common and often find their way into the upper echelons of the festival circuit where they are greeted with acclaim because they fit the mold. Heavy, depressing, bleak, but with one or two stand-out performances, these movies rarely break beyond their boundaries. And if there's one film that encompasses all of that to a tee it's Hellion.
Hellion fits into something I like to call the "festival bubble", which is when perfectly fine movies are given undue credit simply because it's hard to remain objective in that atmosphere. The film is actually quite good and often very moving in its exploration of a young boy in turmoil due to societal pressures and tragic twists of fate, but there's nothing here that hasn't been seen since The 400 Blows wrote the book decades ago. Jacob (Josh Wiggins, a powerful presence) is a teenaged troublemaker in a small Texas town where everybody knows everybody. His younger brother Wes is generally a good kid but is often swept up in Jacob's hell raising that frequently ends in police sirens. They're the sons of Hollis (Aaron Paul), an alcoholic widower still struggling after the death of his wife, and taking care of two growing boys is a problem he isn't equipped to handle.
The law has come calling for Jacob before, placing him in a juvenile delinquent facility with promises of much harder time if he screws up again. But that doesn't stop him in the least, and after wrecking a guy's truck for no good reason, Child Protective Services shows up at the house to investigate. Finding remnants of Hollis' binge drinking, Wes is placed into the custody of an aunt (Juliette Lewis) who promises to give him a more stable home.
Clocking in at just under 100 minutes, Hellion is an awful lot of smoke and no burn so it feels longer than it actually is. Kat Candler directed the film based on a promising 2012 short, and while the family's circumstances aren't expounded upon with the complexity it deserves, the characters are defined nicely by their actions rather than words. Jacob is a motocross racer who hopes winning a big race will fix all of their woes, but for all his good intentions a youthful naiveté remains. Hollis isn't a violent drunk or anything like that. He's a decent, loyal man who is simply out of his depth and has no idea how to keep his family together. Investing in them is easy but Candler never adequately makes clear the stakes for all involved. There are no simple resolutions to be found but Candler brushes aside the notion that Wes may indeed be better off elsewhere. There's never any doubt how things will turn out and when they do it doesn't feel completely earned.
On the plus side, every performance is genuine and Wiggins is an actor we're going to be hearing about for a long time to come. He's the real deal, and shares some intense, subtle moments opposite Aaron Paul. Candler and her cinematographer employ a soft, natural look that emphasizes the film's tenderness. Hellion is a movie you want to be better than it turns out to be, but it doesn't take enough risks to stand out.